Saturday, May 23, 2009

'In the Heat of the Night'

Watched a movie last night I'd never gotten around to seeing.

"In the Heat of the Night," Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, United Artists, 1967.

A man is found murdered late one night in the sleepy Southern town of Sparta, Miss. The initial search turns up a black man (Poitier) who happens to be sitting in the train station waiting to go home. The local doofus deputy hauls him in because, well, he's black. And he has a wad of cash in the wallet.

The sheriff (Steiger) soon finds out that Virgil Tibbs is a homicide detective who knows a bit more about this kind of business than he does. OK, a lot more. So, he "suggests" that Tibbs hang around to help solve the case.

This doesn't set will with virtually everybody in Sparta. But, the story unravels, "Mr. Tibbs" solves the case, then hops on the train. He and Steiger reach an understanding and smile at each other just before "The End" pops onto the screen. Point seems to be black and whites can bridge their differences if they worked together.

Viewed 42 years after its release, "In the Heat of the Night" seems a bit heavy handed. The racial attitudes are cartoonish. Or so you think.

But, this was 10 years before my time. I know a bit about the history. In some places (North and South, though) this could have been a documentary. In some places in the South as late as 15 years before I was born (!), blacks couldn't eat at lunch counters or use the same restrooms as whites. It seems like something from Mars.

I read somewhere (maybe in the excellent "Nixonland") that Poitier was the top box office draw for a few years in the late 1960s. I have seen several of his films, including "To Sir, With Love" and "A Raisin in the Sun." I always liked him.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if this film doesn't still have something to say. Vitriol verbalized during the 2008 presidential election was nauseating. Whatever one thinks about Obama -- and there is plenty to think -- the fact that he is black shouldn't matter. But, of course, in some circles it does.

I have often thought that in some ways our country has reverted. A show like "All in the Family," which dealt openly and honestly about affairs of the day, would never be aired on TV today. Some of the things I read about that are still believed in parts of the good ol' US of A makes me wonder if we're entering a modern day Dark Age.

And then I think, "No, we've come a long way." Obama's election in many ways proves that.

An interesting side note: The small town depicted in the movie was actually filmed in Sparta, Illinois.

Just some thoughts on a movie I watched during the late hours after the baseball game ended. Not a bad flick.

Oh, almost forgot to tell you: The Ray Charles theme woven throughout the film is fantastic. That guy was a genius.

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